“If they come through that door, it’s open season…”
In 2009 a disturbing video and the story behind it made waves around the internet: a man displaying signs of mental illness enters a karate dojo and the dojo’s members assault him and then hide the evidence as the sensei offers encouragement. Unlike most topics that tend to dominate karate chat forums and blogs, this particular story reached people worldwide within and outside of the martial arts community, and set into motion several efforts to bring an abusive “karate sensei” to justice. This is the tale of Bobby Joe Blythe and what happened in 1984 at his Dumfries, VA dojo, and it’s appalling on a number of levels.
The disturbing details came to light when Blythe himself posted some videos from his old dojo on YouTube. YouTube is full of people in martial arts uniforms spouting nonsense and engaging in general idiocy; Blythe’s videos are of a different breed. In one of these clips he gives his dan grades a talk about the right of black belts to abuse whomever they please in the dojo. This diatribe serves as a foreword to the unprovoked assault upon a confused individual which follows in a later video:
“Show your power and enjoy yourself … don’t beg for a thing … demand it or take it … we can do anything we want in this [expletive] dojo. If they come through that door, its open season … it’s my school … I do what I want in my place of business…”
Blythe also posted the following information about the incident on his YouTube account (now defunct):
This dummy was in my shopping center while I was on a Bodyguard Job in Washington, DC. This guy was in the Pizza Hut eating pizza off the plates of others and the Pizza Hut Manager ran him out with a pistol…A short time after that, he visited a Napa Auto Parts store next to my Karate Dojo and told the management he planned on teaching in that Dojo and that Jesus taught him.
The Napa guys told him he was confused (their polite way of warning the man against such action), but not wanting to miss a show, they told the man they would close early just to watch and that he must not know the owner, which is nobody to play with.. Needless to say, the police pulled him out of the dumpster behind my Karate Dojo where he was neatly placed. Semper Fi to all my Marine brothers. The karate student in the white is also a Marine Sgt. and a brand new Black Belt. Never get stupid with a Marine, you could get jacked up and have your clock stopped.
Although these statements sounds like something that the Cobra Kai sensei in the “Karate Kid” movie might say, Blythe seems to really mean it all. But talk is cheap; as if to illustrate his point, Blythe also posted the infamous clip showing one of the black belts, identified as one Willie J. Dennis, acting upon his suggestions by severely beating a mentally ill visitor in the dojo. As the clip in question begins (I would recommend strongly that sensitive viewers avoid finding this clip), Blythe introduces the visitor as a “10th degree red belt” who also claims to be a priest of some kind, and asks the visitor to explain who his master is. In all earnestness the visitor replies that his master is “Jesus Christ,” the man who taught him his martial skills. The individual seems to be completely serious despite the content of his statements. Blythe patronizingly mocks the victim in front of his students (“I’m sure we all want to learn from someone who was taught by Jesus”) for a few minutes, then invites him to demonstrate techniques on one of his dan grades. This is where the behavior shown by Blythe and his students goes from cruel to criminally inhumane.
As Dennis steps up, the visitor explains, “I won’t demonstrate on him, I’ll demonstrate around him.” He goes on to say “I won’t touch you…I’ll demonstrate what is known in karate as a kata.” The visitor then moves closer to the dan grade, and the subsequent dialogue is unintelligible, but without apparent provocation Blythe’s student launches a fast kick at the man’s groin. The visitor is able to evade the kick, and responds with a flurry of his own strikes, which seem to overwhelm Dennis. After backing him up, the visitor clearly says “Don’t do that anymore!” A moment later he explains “I’m not a fighter.” Dennis immediately attacks with another kick and the victim easily evades him for a few moments, assuming a variety of exotic karate-esque postures and throwing strikes towards Dennis whenever he advances. This continues until the victim parries him into a wall and shortly afterward kicks him in the ribs, causing Dennis to stumble and fall back. Having obviously lost face in front of his associates, Dennis intensifies his attacks and drops the victim with a punch to the face, then continues to attack him while he’s on the ground.
The victim is able to get back on his feet, but Dennis continues to punch and throw knee strikes at him. As they separate, the victim says something else to the dan grade that is partially unintelligible, but sounds like “you’re good” as he holds out his hand in a defensive gesture (as in, that’s enough). While the man’s guard is down, Dennis immediately punches him sharply in the face and pushes him into a wall. Several people can be heard in the background offering encouragement to the attacker, and one even pushes the victim back towards him as he falls into a wall. The victim is backed up to the wall and shoved to the ground, where Dennis begins kneeing and kicking him in the head- even after it’s apparent that the man is no longer moving. The victim’s head slams into a metal pole, and Dennis continues by stomping forcefully onto his head and neck several times. Blood pools under the victim’s head and his labored breathing can be heard. As Dennis stops his assault, Blythe can immediately be heard to say “take him out back, throw him in the dumpster.” Students drag the victim across the floor towards a rear exit, and with what can only be described as pride in his voice, Blythe narrates a shot of the blood trail left by the victim. He ends the tape by announcing the date.
Is Karate to Blame?
In the time since I viewed this video, I have been wondering about Blythe’s motivations for posting it. Keeping a low profile obviously was not a concern. With the internet making communication and sharing of information faster by the day, posting a recording of a near-fatal beating that happened under your direction is not very far off from handing it directly to the police. In a time when karate’s mystique and reputation have been deeply undermined by so many shifts in culture, Blythe may have thought that the video would be seen as a herald of the real thing. Sadly, it seems likely that Blythe posted this video because he thought that there would be a welcome audience for it. He may have thought that the “real” karate people would rally to it as an example of what the art is missing. It would be held up as an example of what happens to anyone who dares to doubt the validity of his teaching, his dojo, and the tradition that it all rests on. But in the end, this video is simply a grotesque trophy of aggressive impulses that most of us overcame in grade school.
As this video and its brutal tale circulated around the internet, participants of karate and martial arts forums debated whether or not this incident constituted an abuse of karate. Undeniably, this group’s behavior is a vivid example of a gross abuse of power and the calculated mistreatment of another human being. Yet despite the context of the beating, it is not an abuse of karate. The outward trappings are certainly there: the attack takes place in a dojo, the members and “sensei” are wearing gi and the attacker is in a black belt and throws some typically stiff reverse punches and front kicks. But the relationship to karate ends there.
Karate is not any one thing. Even practitioners of the art cannot agree upon what constitutes karate and what makes it separate from other practice. Inevitably kata is offered up as an explanation, but this often falls apart under scrutiny. The pursuit of character development is also a popular defense, but is this really the case when major organizations (and figures) engage in all sorts of childish behavior over trivial issues? Ultimately, karate is a pedagogy, a structure for learning. That structure can be expanded to encompass some very eclectic definitions and methodologies, and it can also be narrowed to a very specific definition that may vary wildly from group to group. It’s therefore more accurate to say that there are many interpretations of karate, but no single Karate.
Although the techniques typically taught in a karate school are related to violence, they are not in themselves violent. Just as a word may have a relationship to a tangible object, it is not actually that object, only a representation of it. In the same way, karate techniques are representations of violent activities, but are not in themselves violent activities. Techniques (representations) are used to simulate violent behaviors against another human being during training, yet the techniques have no actual power by themselves. A punch or a kick does not exist outside of the conceptual realm unless an individual manifests one, and the act of manifesting such actions cannot be attributed to anything but the individual. The individual who decides to act violently is responsible for the manifestation of that behavior, regardless of how he or she goes about it. To borrow from Robert Miller,
“It is not karate who must be vigilant about not becoming inappropriately violent and aggressive. It will not be karate that carries around the moral and psychological wound of not knowing if the action we took in our defense was sufficient or excessive. It is you and I, the persons engaged with the practice of karate who make karate real or not, brutal or not, effective or not.”
It is also we as practitioners who can decide to make karate a tool for abuse or not. The person utilizing a skill is responsible for the outcomes that it produces- not the technique, not karate. In the case of Blythe’s dojo, everyone in that group decided to participate in the training atmosphere that led to the beating, and while it was happening all present elected to perpetuate or condone the violence, actively or tacitly. Anyone could have stopped it, or gone to get the police- yet none did. Despite the dojo setting, this can only be equated to a major failing on the part of the individuals involved. Saying that karate was abused ignores the fact that human beings initiated the abuse, and a human being received the abuse. It also gives karate a power that it simply does not have.
As despicable as the actions of this video and the small backwater of dojo culture that produced it are, it can serve as a yardstick that we would do well to heed. Such an extremity of interpretation can help to put into perspective some of the change that is at work on karate from the inside and from without. Among karate practitioners, the question of how to classify this contemptible incident often invokes the phrases “Budo” and “Bujutsu.”Is this case an example of the failure of ideals behind karate–do, or of an extremity of the pragmatic concerns of karate–jutsu?
The appropriate question may instead be: do those categories even apply at all?
There seems to be a trend in the karate world right now that can best be described as a pull between two ends of a continuum: Budo vs. Bujutsu. These two terms are often ambiguous and prone to quite a range of interpretations, and frankly ought to be set aside in favor of clearer concepts. Yet just like belts and the gi and the rest of the relatively recent Japanese trappings, they have become attached to karate. Many karate organizations and practitioners ideate their practice as resting on Budo: the idea that karate-do is for developing oneself.
As MMA and UFC style competitions have gained popularity, the Budo camp seems to be reacting to the presence of something that has dramatically undermined the quasi-mystical base that karate once enjoyed in this country. The big questions are finally out in the open: what the hell good does marching around the dojo doing oi-tsuki and counting in Japanese do for ones defensive skills or character? What combat-specific purpose is served by punching into thin air 95% of the time? Why the emphasis on organizational hierarchies that allow fat, inept “masters” to hide behind their belts instead of actually hitting the mat (as they continue to spout lofty Zen platitudes)? One generic response to these questions from the Budo camp can be summed up as: “karate-do is about developing spirit.” Fighting ability is a secondary goal to using karate as a vehicle for personal development (begging the larger question: why do you still advertise self defense instruction?). And to add even more confusion, defenders of the Budo camp have a penchant for talking about the lethality and inherent danger in their karate even as they insist that it is a path for character development, not fighting.
But the form which that spirit takes is defined by the instructor and his or her students, despite any standards that organizations may espouse. For someone like Gichin Funakoshi, karate-do’s goal was not unlike that of the Boy Scouts, or a civic group with kata practice thrown in. Modern interpretations of his vision by groups such as the JKA are less clear, but much lip service is still paid to the ideals contained in the dojo kun: character, honesty, courtesy, strength of spirit, and sublimation of violence. Yet the interpretation of such ideals is completely dependent upon the teachers and students of the art. In Blythe’s case, the spirit to be developed through karate-do was obviously summed up by his own statement to “show your power and enjoy yourself… we can do anything we want in this [expletive] dojo.” Such malleability can lead to interpretations that are diametrically opposed to each other; a karate dojo can be a place of positive education and development, but it can also be a breeding ground for our worst qualities. The concept of Do can be warped to justify either one.
Often times very senior black belts are held up as high examples of the benefits of physical training with an emphasis on –do. Yet this may or may not be accurate depending on the individual (not the art, not the group) in question. Several experiences that my seniors had with their former colleagues in a well known Shotokan karate organization are full of bad behavior on the part of highly ranked, respected “masters”: approaching students for sexual favors in exchange for ranking; self-awarded promotions to high dan grades, bolstered by absurd tales of secret Asian masters promoting them on the side of the highway; hiding inability to perform the art behind lofty platitudes; thinly disguised elitism; and embezzlement of group funds, just to name a few. These “masters” continue to put themselves on moral pedestals, raking in the cash while this sort of thing goes on in the open.
To whit, a couple of years ago I had an conversation with a well known shotokan exponent on a karate discussion forum that bordered on absurdity. It started when he insisted that a kata application demonstrated by a Japanese instructor was “real lethal Budo karate.” I asked for clarification, since Budo is not generally defined as the quest to develop killing ability (not to mention that the application in question was ludicrous at best: spinning in the air around a stationary oi-zui, slapping him in the chest and face; far more likely to simply piss off an attacker instead of killing him). This brought about a litany of criticism: obviously I had been training wrong, not long enough, and with the wrong people, and could never hope to understand what Budo is about since I didn’t train with Japanese instructors. As others questioned his usage of the term, the conversation got more hostile and began to openly insult people for having the audacity to request that he explain his contradictory use of it.
Over the course of these exchanges he became angrier and more paradoxical in his responses, until finally I received a private message in which he invited me to “come to Japan so I can knock your #*%@ing teeth out.” A later email informed me that I should be careful, because “accidents can happen f***er, it’s a small world.” This was apparently not the first time that this person got abusive with someone over a karate related discussion. This particular concept of Budo seems to be rather murky. Doing 1000’s of air gyaku zuki’s is somehow an aid to spiritual development AND becoming a killing machine, and threatening anyone who disagrees is an acceptable response. As amusing as some of these messages were (“you have the private parts of a girl!”), I was left wondering how the ideal of karate-do had produced this skewed perspective. Yet there is no shortage of people who are willing to be the fodder for charismatic and abusive instructors, or to be unquestioning, enabling disciples of instructors who lack the character qualities that they preach to their students.
Despite the lofty ideals of karate as Budo, karate is not automatically a pursuit which develops one’s character. Individual instructors, students and groups ultimately decide what form their practice will take and where it will lead them. But karate by itself is not a guarantor that the practitioners are any more or less moral and ethical than the average person.
The Bujutsu camp is also reacting to the emergence of criticism and deconstruction, but in a different way. Students are looking for applications of karate that make sense. Not explanations of kata that include hopping over rice paddies or dead bodies, or the embu demonstrations that go something like this: block, turn, block another attacker, turn, block another attacker who just happens to be kicking three times in a row so you can block him, turn, etc… This type of karate student is looking for things that work when taken out of the dojo, and that take account of reality and address it head on. Developing the ability to handle oneself and protect others is a key motivator that makes claims of tradition or fantasy-inspired pursuits secondary.
By looking at the work of historical figures such as Motobu and Mabuni, we can see that this pragmatism has always been a concern in some karate circles; yet somehow a lot of us were sold on the idea that karate existed in some far-off chivalrous time when poor, downtrodden Zen Buddhist Okinawan farmers were kicking Samurai off of their horses, punching through their bamboo armor with gyaku-zuki and attacking them with communal farm tools. (Never mind the fact that Buddhism was never widely adopted by Ryukyuans, or that metal implements were scarce for the lower levels of Okinawan society and were owned by aristocratic landlords; or that punching lacquered bamboo plate will result in a broken hand, or that no verifiable historical documentation of a peasant taking on a Satsuma Samurai exists, period.)
For this end of the continuum, karate is a way to develop the skills needed to manage physical violence. And as with Budo, the culture of each group is determined by the instructor, and who he or she chooses to take on as students. For most clubs this takes the form of very spirited, physically intense and mentally challenging training. Students are there to “help each other get better,” although bumps, bruises and the occasional black eye may happen. The learning environment may be intense but that intensity is checked by friendships and concern for the other’s positive development (which sounds an awful lot like it might contribute to the “character development” that many shrilly insist is impossible outside of their dojo/org).
Then there is the darker side that Bobby Joe Blythe and his students demonstrate with such frightening zeal. For someone like Blythe, anyone who will listen unquestioningly to whatever sensei says is good student material. Everyone else is simply a punching bag that can bleed. Bujutsu is a very appealing means to justifying socially unacceptable behavior, ie, “we’re here to kick some asses.” Dressing it up in the titles and conventions of another culture makes it palatable, and to some, appealing. For someone looking to cause others harm while minimizing their own chances of being injured, dressing up in a karate gi and shouting in pidgin Japanese a few times a week is an appealing, enabling scenario. If this sounds outlandish, recall that elitist groups and cults throughout history have relied upon titles, costumes and pageantry to make their activities acceptable and seemingly dramatic.
The opportunities that such a setting creates for abuses of power reminds me of an experience that I had one summer while home from college. Looking for a good place to train away from the TKRI VA dojo, I visited a dojo that advertised itself as teaching authentic karate-jutsu. It seemed like a better bet than a “Freestyle Family karate” place where I had trained as a guest during previous breaks. There couldn’t have been a bigger contrast. The environment at the “traditional” school was almost militaristic. It seemed like the sensei could not open his mouth without the students bleating out “osu, osu!” Sometimes the chorus of ossuing literally drowned out what he was saying. The teacher himself was a very charismatic individual who obviously enjoyed the role.
This charisma soon began to take on a disturbing tone. I was both surprised and bothered at how the sensei obviously enjoyed himself when demonstrating techniques on students. He would hold them in some painful lock and steadily apply more pressure as he talked at length, joking nonchalantly about the pain that he was causing. Meanwhile, the student would be gasping and writhing on the floor for a minute or longer. I should have known better than to train there at all after seeing this scene repeated several times in the first night, but I still had the naïve understanding that karate was something that intrinsically inspired decency and thought I might learn something if I just shut up and trained.
The senior students displayed the same attitude as their teacher; on the first night that I attended one of their classes I wore a white belt, per my own sensei’s request that I do so until told otherwise. I paired up with one of the black belts to work on an application from the Naihanchi kata that involved throwing the uke in such a way that his wrist and elbow would be fractured in multiple places. He nearly broke my arm by doing this at speed, and refused to go any slower. He was obviously frustrated that I wouldn’t simply let him do what he pleased. It occurred to me later that this guy thought I was a raw beginner (since I was wearing a white belt), and was trying to see if he could break my arm. This was not the only time that one of the seniors or the sensei demonstrated an intent to hurt someone. I stopped attending classes after a couple of weeks because the teacher and his students had made it clear that for them karate-jutsu was a rationalization to exercise a kind of dangerous elitism. They may have had effective technique, and the school may have produced people who could fight. But they were the last people I wanted to spend my time with.
Fortunately there are plenty of groups (I would hope to be right in estimating that the number is far, far more) in the karate-jutsu category that bear no resemblance whatsoever to that sort of domineering. These groups train like hell, but they count each other as friends, not just training partners. They look at new students as opportunities to improve the collective, not as moving targets. They get together on the weekends and have a beer and share dinner and jokes. They take up collections for a member who is sick and needs help staving off bill collectors. They volunteer as a group for charitable events, or agree to teach a mature kid when inside they may be as uncomfortable as Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop.”
When a visitor shows up to the dojo who has a chip on their shoulder or is simply “not all there” (like the victim in the Blythe video), they restrain themselves and handle the person with control, even though they may put him squarely in his place. Intense practice of a martial art does not paint a bull’s eye on the rest of the world. In a way, I’ve come to feel that vigorous and honest exchange of dangerous techniques is a more honest way to develop respect for life than reciting the dojo kun or sitting in seiza. Once you’ve begun to see how fragile life really is and how easily a person can be seriously injured, the desire to do so becomes very unappealing.
Sometimes the –do end of the spectrum sneers at this, for how could anyone pursuing karate as a simple skill ever develop into good people? The answer is simple: because they decide to be good people, and those who wish to act otherwise simply aren’t welcome. Such a dojo can become like an extended family and still practice seriously. To paraphrase Koryu expert Meik Skoss, “they don’t eat their young.”
It seems as if the martial arts are especially prone to attracting individuals who are eager to exert control over others, regardless of whether or not they have any serious background in a given art or credentials for teaching it. I have come to find that people like Blythe, or some of the negative examples above, do not really fit into either the Budo or Bujutsu categories. Instead, they fall into what is known as Bullshit. Bad behavior is inexcusable anywhere that it crops up, but it seems to be especially highlighted when it involves teachers/students of an art that is often packaged with a very strong character development component. The popular conception of the karate adept is often some combination of Zen monk, indestructible master of combat, and heir to the chivalrous code of Bushido. Yet despite what some may want to believe or portray, this image is mostly due to television and movie characters, and does not reflect reality.
And why should it? Karate does not endow one with superior morals any more than boxing or playing golf does. Spending years on obsessing over whether or not the hips are in perfect hanmi, or the fist is rotated just so does not instill morals. Doing kihon several times per week does not make you an asset to society. A black belt does not mean anything to anyone outside of the group that issues it. Technique is an inanimate set of representations that have no power to instill good or bad character. Blythe and his minions are proof enough of that. Character development is a product of the interaction between human beings who can be honest with themselves; karate is only what we make of it.
And if the example of Blythe and his sadly confused students can teach us anything, it’s that we better make it something that does not enable bad behavior and pass off abuse as an excusable privilege for those at the top of the belt hierarchy.
Note: Early attempts to bring legal action against Blythe and his student Willie Dennis failed to yield results because the victim could not be found. Although the story has attracted much attention the victim has not been positively identified, nor have any reports consistent with his injuries and behavior. Without a victim no charges can be filed. Since the video went viral, several blogs and martial arts sites have found Blythe and Dennis’ current addresses and criminal records and made the information public. Several reports suggest that this was not the first or last time that a visitor was attacked in this dojo.